This article was first published on 17th March 2020 in the Telegraph
In times of crisis, Boris Johnson has no doubt asked himself what his idol, Pericles, would do. While the iconic Greek statesman - whose bust adorns the Prime Minister's office - was a gifted orator and election-winner, he would not offer much guidance on how to tackle the coronavirus given that he died in an epidemic.

Then again, the plague of Athens was such a notorious outbreak - an early example in a line of diseases that blighted the Graeco-Roman world - that Mr Johnson will be painfully aware, as a classicist, about how people react to such events - and what can happen if they get out of control.

Of course, the wonders of modern medicine and health standards mean that while Covid-19 may be a pandemic - it comparatively milder than the pandemics of the past, which had much higher fatality rates as victims in the Classical era suffered from grisly symptoms reminiscent of Ebola, smallpox or a precursor to the Black Death.
These scourges were grappled with in ways that will seem somewhat familiar now. The disease which afflicted Athens in 429BC was chronicled harrowingly by Thucydides, who himself contracted and survived it. "People started spending money indiscriminately", he noted, as these Athenian panic-buyers lived each day like it could be their last. Social distancing was instinctive, so much so that many homes were left vacant after their owners were left to waste away alone. But those who hung together were no better off: "some died in neglect, others enjoying every attention".
Doctors struggled to work out how to handle the plague, with every attempted panacea in vain. At least their modern descendants know a coronavirus vaccine is only a matter of time. But in both instances, they put themselves at high risk of exposure by dint of being on the epidemiological frontline. As Thucydides writes: "There was the awful spectacle of men dying like sheep, through having caught the infection in nursing each other".
The plague thrived in the crowded city, with lots of potential carriers flooding into Athens and housed at the height of summer in tiny cabins, a decision which may now look as clever as those who joined the sweaty rampacked crowds to watch Stereophonics over the weekend. It became so overwhelming that law and order broke down, as citizens concluded that no God would save them, and they were suffering a greater sentence than any court could hand down. Shoppers may have come to blows over toilet paper, but we are thankfully nowhere near that anarchic.

Tens of thousands died, with the aftermath seeing city chiefs move to implement their answer to a travel ban by tightening the laws on who could become an Athenian citizen. But Athens was left drained of its geopolitical heft, no longer a regional superpower but a husk of its former self.
Rome, whose rise came just a few centuries later, was bedevilled by its fare share of diseases. Near the end of the second century AD, the Antonine Plague (so-called after the Emperor of the time, Marcus Aurelius Antonius) spread across the Empire - brought back by soldiers returning from a campaign out in the Far East.
Just as we see pandemic panic drive people to embrace false remedies peddled on the internet, so back then did scared citizens warm to quacks who passed off black magic and faith healing as solutions. Tax revenues declined from 165AD due to the flight of fearful survivors and upsurge in deaths, while civic building projects ground to a halt in Rome (as well as London) while the plague raged for over a decade.

No one was safe, with Marcus Aurelius forced to loosen the requirements to be on Athens' ruling council as too few citizens were alive who were up to scratch. His own co-emperor died from the plague as well. When it was his turn to meet his maker, he was said to have uttered on his deathbed: "Weep not for me; think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others.”

Within a few decades, the Roman Empire was hit by another pandemic. The Cyprian Plague, named after the bishop of Carthage - St Cyprian - who wrote about what raged from 249AD as an eyewitness. He recorded how people were driven to a much greater panic than those rushing to the supermarket to stockpile, as they fought to save themselves - even if it meant leaving others to take the lead on developing herd immunity:
"All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if by leaving that person to die of the plague, they could escape death itself too."

A typical Roman was expected to be proudly stoic in the face of death, accepting their fate serenely, but that sangfroid did not hold up amid this outbreak. Some citizens rushed to blame this disease on the nascent religion of Christianity, spinning it as a divine punishment for such heretical beliefs. This attempted scapegoating backfired, as many of those fearing the plague warmed to the charitable Christians who cared for the sick rather than their pagan counterparts, who were happy for others to take it on the chin.
Around  the middle of the 6th century AD, another plague broke out which proved the already crumbling Roman Empire was on its way out. The grain price shot up in Constantinople, then centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, as stricken farmers could not tend to their crops. Poverty and starvation were rife as agriculture was wiped out. The state coffers, already running dry after spending splurges on big imperial wars and infrastructure projects, suffered a further blow due to the rise in deaths leaving them short on tax revenues.

How did the Emperor respond? Justinian rushed through emergency legislation to deal with the flood of inheritance disputes arising from the plague-induced deaths, and he decided to plug the funding gap by squeezing more taxes out of those who had survived. While Rishi Sunak rightly offered generous support to help businesspeople through the coronavirus and stands ready to shell out even more, Emperor Justinian insisted that his citizens not only cough up what was expected of them, but cover the payments owed by their dead neighbours — while making room for soldiers who had come back from war and needed accommodation.
Given the desperation the Romans were reduced to in response to such pandemics, it's little surprise that the their Empire soon crumbled into dust.
Romans and Greeks tended to read supernatural significance into these outbreaks, regarding them as a sign that their gods were angry. As naive as that belief may be, officials recognise coronavirus' similarly extraordinary nature in declaring that it is "effectively an act of God".

The grim tales of Classical pestilence must be seared into the Prime Minister's mind, reminding him of how fearful and helpless people can feel in response to a pandemic. Hence he is not messing about in leading the Government's response to the coronavirus, deferring to scientists and taking whatever steps they deem best to save lives.

Mr Johnson may not be at risk of suffering the same fate as his hero Pericles, but his knowledge of how devastating such pandemics have proved to be in the past has clearly hardened his resolve to handle the coronavirus as firmly as possible.

Asa Bennett's Romanifesto: Modern Lessons from Classical Politics is available here.